Why some teams excel under adversity


John Neal's weekly blog throughout rugby’s biggest competition. His blog will offer an insight into what businesses can learn from the highs and lows of the competition...

Added on 15 October 2015 by John Neal

rugby team success under pressure

The world cup this week has delivered some fantastic examples of teamwork and outstanding effort when the chips are down and the numbers are stacked against you.

Sport is like that and always has been throughout history. The underdog certainly seems to have a bite - and given the numerous occasions when a team with fewer players, injuries or sending offs manages to excel, it’s worth investigating the “how” and “why” this is the case.



They work harder and are more motivated to do what is needed.

The research shows that with fewer players, the remaining players run further and faster than if they had a full complement.


This is a little more interesting and certainly more complex.

There is some evidence that when a group of well-bonded individuals has a clear and emotionally resonant goal, they will work much harder for each other, and towards that goal.

When a team feels that they are at threat of having something which matters taken away from them, they become adrenalized and in the “zone”. As a result they increase their focus and there is a good evidence that they have greater physical power.

Adrenalin is a powerful hormone and even when you think you have little left to give, adrenalin will give you more. Think how teams celebrate when they have won, even though they are completely on their knees.

Interestingly, teams will often defend a lead with more passion than they will attack to win back a lead. It is believed that this is because we fight harder not to lose something that we care about, to protect what we have and to survive, much more than to pursue what we do not have.

So are there any lessons here for business teams?

Yes must be the answer - but are teams willing to do what is required to move from being a group of individuals to a real team? It is common in sport but rare in business.

The following questions will help you assess what stage your team is at:

  1. Is there a clear and simple short term outcome or focus (goal, vision, mission, call it what you will)?
  2. Does every member of the team have a powerful emotional connection with the goal or vision?
  3. Is the goal greater than the individual… does it really matter?
  4. Does every member of the team have “skin in the game"?
  5. Would every member of the team give up of themselves to enable the team to achieve?
  6. Do the members of the team know each other more than just skin deep?
  7. Do the members of the team really care about each other?
  8. Is every member of the team trusting, and trusted, completely?
  9. Is there is a simple and clear strategy to achieve the goal?

If your answer to all these questions is yes, then you are likely to display some incredible team work, so just make sure you are ahead of the opposition when things go wrong and the chips are down, and your team will defend your lead like heroes.

If your answer is no…then start working hard in each area or stay as a ‘group’ rather than a ‘team’. You will still achieve plenty, but you will never make the back pages!

John Neal is also Director of Ashridge’s Sports Business Partnership which explores and applies the transferable lessons between business and sport creating powerful analogical learning experiences in the classroom.